Joan Fitzgerald is professor and director of the Law, Policy and Society graduate program at Northeastern University. Her forthcoming book is Emerald Cities: Urban Sustainability and Economic Development.
How to generate more good jobs for Americans? Conventionally, policy-makers and economists give great weight to two strategies -- education and economic development. Presumably, a better educated workforce will command higher pay. And economic development will generate more jobs, one hopes good jobs. But there are limits to what these two approaches can accomplish, given how they are practiced through flawed government policies in the face of new global conditions.
Lilliana Diaz has operated a child-care business in her Lowell, Massachusetts, home for more than four years. Often rising before dawn and putting in 10-hour days, she guides eight toddlers through a busy schedule of reading, playtime, meals, and more. To get to this point, Diaz completed a 63-hour training course, then earned a Childhood Development Associate (CDA) credential, and is now working toward an associate's degree. But because Massachusetts, like 32 other states, does not reimburse family child-care providers based on their education level, she makes the same as a provider who has just 15 hours of course work -- the bare minimum required by the state.
Low-wage jobs cause stagnant living standards only when they are dead-end jobs. Deliberately designed occupational pathways can enable people to move up as they acquire more skills: Entry-level wages may be low, but people advance beyond them. A plumbing apprentice, a junior associate in a law firm, a medical intern or a news clerk at a metropolitan paper are all low-paid workers on the first rung of a well-paid career. To a very limited extent, career ladders also exist for lower-status jobs in services and manufacturing. A small number of nurse aides advance to nurses, day-care workers to teachers, chambermaids to concierges, tellers to loan officers and factory assemblers to skilled machinists. So why not extend this model to the rest of society?
High-quality child care is the biggest missing element in welfare-to-work efforts. Despite additional funding under welfare reform, the care available to most low-income women and their children is usually custodial and unreliable. Many former welfare recipients themselves work providing child care -- at low wages in unstable employment. So upgrading child care would actually serve three related goals: It would provide a key work support for mothers. It would improve outcomes of at-risk children. And it would raise the earnings and career horizons of many people formerly on welfare, serving as a model of how to upgrade low-wage work.
Nobody is happy with the nation's nursing homes. Too many patients are receiving substandard care. Workers, particularly nurse's aides who provide the majority of direct care, suffer from low wages, lack of benefits, understaffing, inadequate training, and limited career opportunities. Families are often appalled at how their loved ones are treated. Owners and managers struggle with government reimbursements that do not allow higher pay or better treatment. Clearly, the $96.2-billion-a-year nursing home industry is failing its residents and workers.